For one morning last week the field house next to Gillette Stadium was Tom Brady's personal playground. Joining the 31-year-old quarterback were the four receivers he hopes will be on the field with him for the Patriots' first series of the 2009 season, on Sept. 14 against the Bills. Brady split Randy Moss and Joey Galloway outside the numbers and lined up Wes Welker and Greg Lewis in the slots, then they jogged through some of the new pass plays that New England will be installing in training camp. It had been 32 weeks since Brady's left knee was surgically reconstructed, and he moved straight ahead, laterally and backward with no pain. No one brought up the injury. Brady didn't stop to think, Hey, my knee feels great. They just worked through the routes, and Brady wondered, When we run this play against Buffalo, how will the defense respond?
"Come on!" Moss said before Brady called the last of the 25 or so plays they ran. "Make this a hard one!"
Moss likes to be challenged, and he's one of the best in the game at reading his quarterback's subtle signals. Moss showed that in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLII when, after seeing a simple nod from Brady, he adjusted his route, cut inside the cornerback and caught a six-yard touchdown pass to put the Patriots up 14--10 over the Giants. This time Brady called one of the new plays with a hand signal; to further test Moss, he quick-snapped and backpedaled, seeing if his receivers would figure out what to do.
Moss guessed wrong, walking off the line of scrimmage confused. "What are you doing?" Brady yelled.
"I don't know," Moss said. "What [play] is it?"
Brady called out the name, then said, triumphantly, "I'm going home! I got Moss today! I got you!"
Even Moss had to laugh.
This week, when New England starts full-roster organized training activities (OTAs), Brady will step into the huddle with the entire offense for the first time since he tore his left anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in the 2008 season opener. (Last week's sessions were for rookies, free agents and select veterans returning from injury, with Brady and his top receivers working in seclusion.) The quarterback acts and sounds as if he wished the Buffalo game were tomorrow. In his first extended interview since he got hurt, Brady told SI that his recovery is on schedule, he's running and cutting without pain or restricted movement, and he has no ill effects from two follow-up procedures to flush out a postop staph infection in the knee. In fact, calling the last eight months "the halftime of my career," Brady said, "I want to play another 10 years."
He was convincing when he said he was "as confident as anyone could be that I'll be ready to play, back to playing normally, when the seasons starts. I've done everything I could to push myself, sometimes too hard. Right now, I'm doing everything. Literally everything. There's nothing I can't do."
With his voice rising as he leaned forward in his chair, Brady said that playing 10 more seasons "is a big goal of mine, a very big goal. I want to play until I'm 41. And if I get to that point and still feel good, I'll keep playing. I mean, what the hell else am I going to do? I don't like anything else.
"People say, 'What will you do if you don't play football?' Why would I even think of doing anything else? What would I do instead of run out in front of 80,000 people and command 52 guys and be around guys I consider brothers and be one of the real gladiators? Why would I ever want to do anything else? It's so hard to think of anything that would match what I do: Fly to the moon? Jump out of planes? Bungee-jump off cliffs? None of that s--- matters to me. I want to play this game I love, be with my wife and son, and enjoy life."
Impassioned, fiery, a little defiant‚Äîit was a side of Tom Brady the public hasn't often seen. Truth is, the public hasn't seen much of Brady at all since the injury, save for the few images taken with the long telephoto lenses of the paparazzi‚Äîsharing an ice cream cone in Brazil with his new wife, supermodel Gisele B√ºndchen; strolling on the beach with his toddler son, Jack; golfing with the Entourage cast; catching a Celtics playoff game with B√ºndchen. Brady has jealously guarded his privacy; and those close to him, including coach Bill Belichick and the rest of the Patriots staff, have helped him do so.
Last week, though, he finally opened up about what his life has been like since Sept. 7, when the helmet of Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard smashed into his knee on New England's 15th snap of last season. (Kansas City was blitzing; the hit appeared accidental and was not flagged by the officials.) Brady said he never felt anger toward Pollard ("It's football‚Äîthere's no way he owes me an explanation") or bitterness over his first major injury. But he did admit to feeling "pretty empty" as he was being helped to the sideline. "You go down, they take you off the field, the ref blows the whistle, the 25-second clock starts, and they play the game without you," Brady said. "You're like, Wow. That's really what it's like. They play without you."
To perform the operation, Brady chose a friend, orthopedic surgeon Neal S. ElAttrache in Los Angeles, reportedly against the wishes of the Patriots' medical staff; last week Brady said his choice had the full support of Belichick and team owner Robert Kraft. Two days after the Oct. 6 surgery, he defied B√ºndchen's pleas and his doctor's orders to stay off the leg by putting Jack on his shoulder and moving around the hospital room, playing with him. A hematoma developed in the knee, and the staph infection ensued.
"I wanted to prove I could move around and get ahead of schedule," Brady recalled, "and nothing was going to stop me. Unfortunately I did too much too soon. I was responsible for the infection. In a way it was probably good for me‚Äîit slowed me down a little bit."
Since the two procedures to clear the infection, Brady said he's had no problems with the knee and denied a December report that he was in danger of having to undergo a second major surgery because of the two staph cleanups. He returned to Foxborough last November, commenced daily rehab at the Patriots' facility and was soon throwing a football. For the rest of the NFL season he stayed out of the public eye, watching games at his home in Boston's Back Bay. "Coach Belichick didn't want me on the sidelines for the game," Brady said. "He told me, 'Every time we'd throw an incompletion the camera would go to you on the sideline, and we don't need that.' And I didn't want to watch from a [luxury] box."
By the end of December, Brady was able to run and cut pretty well. Back at his home in Southern California, he woke up on Super Bowl Sunday, five months after the injury, and his thought was: I'm going to play some football. He called ElAttrache and a few other buddies, and before the Cardinals and the Steelers played for the NFL championship 2,200 miles away in Tampa, Brady threw and caught with his friends on a field at UCLA. "Running, jumping, throwing‚Äîit felt so good," Brady said. "Throwing never was a problem. I've really felt comfortable throwing since two months after surgery."
Brady said he learned much about himself during his forced layoff. "When I was playing every week, I bitched about the little things," he said. "Like, God, we've got to go outside today? It's raining! Or, why is Bill dunking the ball in soap? Or, why do we have a meeting at 7:30 to talk about everything we've already talked about. Geez!
"Then, when you're not playing, you realize you would [gladly] do any of that‚Äîwhatever they wanted me to do. I saw the guys in the locker room, mid-November; I was doing rehab, and they were at the point of the season when things had slowed down, and they were bitching. I said, 'Come on, guys! It's football!' Mentally, they needed a break, but I said, 'Quit complaining!'"
Brady drew an analogy based on his parenting experience with 21-month-old Jack. "I don't see him every day"‚ÄîBrady shares custody with former girlfriend Bridget Moynahan‚Äî"and we play when I change his diaper: lifting his leg up, playing with his toes, biting his feet. There's this different appreciation. If you had him every day, you'd go, Let's just get this done. But when you get him, say, one week a month, you're like, This is so cool!
"So, this year if I hear [the Pats have] two-a-day practices? Great! Let's have three. Whatever you say, Coach. You need something from the players? Let me know, and I'll do what I can to get the players to do it."
Brady and Bundchen were quietly married on Feb. 26 in Santa Monica, Calif. On April 4 they held a larger ceremony for family and friends at a secluded beachfront in Costa Rica. Not surprisingly, snooping photographers also showed up. Two claimed that bodyguards for Brady and Bundchen shot at their car. "Absolute total b.s.," Brady said last week. "We found two guys on our property, and we told them to get out. Our security guys didn't even have guns. There were no shots fired."
Back in Boston now, Brady says he and Bundchen aren't harassed as much by paparazzi as elsewhere. They can move around fairly freely and can take Jack to a nearby park, where they encounter only the occasional autograph-seeker. Better yet, Brady's able to get back into the routine of the off-season, the annual buildup to another run at the Super Bowl. "I'll tell you what I'm looking forward to‚Äîpractice," he said. "Screw the games; they'll take care of themselves. I want to be out there with my guys. I'm so anxious to get out there and practice."
He's thrown to Moss and Welker a dozen or so times in the last few months. "He's got me running all over the field," Welker said last Friday. "Once or twice I've been like, 'Hey, Tom, we just had a pretty long season. Let's take some baby steps here.' But he doesn't want to hear that. When you're on the field with him, you're out there playing."
Asked how Brady was moving, if he was struggling at all, Welker said, "Nope"‚Äîthen chuckled‚Äî"he looks like the same slow guy he was before.
"Just wait, you'll see. He's the same guy."
"I want to play another 10 years. Why would I even think of doing anything else?"